Women in Science (a thank-you letter)

Today (11 February) is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight a few women (in science) in my life. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and any women in my life who are not mentioned here are no less inspirational to me. I admire you all.

As a young grasshopper, I used to watch wildlife shows on TV with my dad and grandmother quite often. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my grandmother laughing at my efforts to mimic the way Jeff Corwin said the word “habitat”. Growing up, my family never went away on safari or to nature reserves, but we were blessed to live at the foot of Devil’s Peak (part of Table Mountain in Cape Town, SA). At the time, our lawn graded from alien grass on our doorstep, up into montane fynbos vegetation with no clear separation between where our property ended and where the Table Mountain National Park began. We had little tortoises and guinea fowl as regular visitors – even a little deer (or so I was told). Long story short, I grew up with a natural curiosity and appreciation for nature and its diversity. And that curiosity drew me inevitably into the realm of natural sciences, with the wholehearted support of my educators, my peers, my colleagues, and my mother. This is a thank you letter to all of you.

Mrs Jackie Wibberley

Mrs Wibberley was my high school Life Sciences (biology) teacher. She went far out of her way to keep us (my classmates and I) curious about not only the natural sciences, but science in general. She encouraged us to read popular articles (she even brought them to class and read them to us), she gave anecdotes to help us remember the difficult, boring parts of the curriculum, she paid attention to those who asked questions and if she couldn’t answer, she would do the research and find out. She noticed a burning curiosity in me, and she helped cultivate it. She encouraged me all the way through my Matric year (12th grade) and was thrilled to hear my plans to study biological sciences. I owe a lot of my motivation to her, and I wish I had spent more time getting to know her background before losing touch. I hope to reconnect with her once I submit my thesis and obtain my MSc… I think that would make her very happy. Thank you, Mrs Wibberley.

Gabriella Leighton

Gabi, apart from being the person I am most likely to be seen having tea with, is a pretty cool person to know. She has been involved in the development of a web application which allows researchers to cache images using a Google Image search and use them to test hypotheses involving phenotypic polymorphisms. She’s published an article about it in a renowned international scientific journal, and was awarded a prize by the British Ecological Society for her efforts. She’s currently pursuing a PhD… Oh, and she hasn’t even hit a quarter-century yet. I’m probably her biggest fan and she doesn’t even know it. I have so much faith in you, Gabi. Thanks for always being there for Academic Hana, and for being a layabout with me.

Nikita Finger

Nikita was a co-supervisor on one of my Honours projects in 2015. Last year, Nikita and I spent many, many weekends calling each other and using TeamViewer to co-author a paper on our combined findings using behavioural and acoustic data she collected for her MSc in 2013/2014. It has been one hell of a ride, but it is very nearly complete. Her dedication to the task and her insights into the field of animal behavioural ecology have made her a researcher that I look up to in many respects. I struggle to imagine working that many hours on the same manuscript with anyone else. And throughout the whole ordeal, she’s been nothing but supportive and motivational – someone who listened and sympathised when I complained about the things that frustrated me about research and academic writing. Another incredible woman in science. Thanks, Nikita. I can’t wait to get this paper published and give you a big hug and a high five, because words will not adequately encapsulate the relief we’ll both be feeling at that point…

Morea Petersen

My mother. What a woman. Life filled her basket with lemons during the years she spent pursuing her Master’s degree in Medicine (specialising in medical cell biology) part-time, but she kept going. I cannot imagine the amount of dedication and courage it took to complete that thesis, but she did it, and she finally received her degree last year. She’s inspired me, encouraged me, guided me, supported me, and uplifted me in more ways than I can even begin to describe. She has been my biggest fan since day one, and always will be. If I can model myself by her example, I have no doubt that a successful career as a woman in science is what lies ahead for me. Thank you, mom. For everything, as always.

And thank you to all the amazing, inspirational women out there doing their bit in the name of science. Diversity in STEM will always be something to strive for.


First field work of 2017: Eastern Karoo

My co-supervisor Sam Jack and I spent another week sampling sites in the Eastern Karoo last week. Last time we were out was in September last year, sampling the icy cold slopes in Sutherland. The situation this time round was quite the opposite.

The eastern-most extent of the Eastern Karoo that we sampled ranged from Colesberg to Middelburg to Cradock (north to south), and comprises the most mesic (wettest) part of the environmental gradient that my MSc research investigates.

Study area - Eastern Karoo. Points labelled "A" are dolerite koppies that have been sampled.

Study area – Eastern Karoo. Points labelled “A” are dolerite koppies that have been sampled. The blue demarcated area shows the central Karoo (encloses sites 2 – 8) and eastern Karoo area (encloses sites 1, and 13 – 18) designated for shale gas exploration.

On day one, we drove all the way up to Colesberg in the Northern Cape (my first time visiting), a 9-hour drive from Cape Town. We stayed in a quaint little caravan park in a tiny bungalow, and were eaten alive by mosquitoes, despite how well-armed I was with my citronella oil burner. I feel like they almost enjoyed the smell of citronella… Alas.

Itchy bites notwithstanding, we sampled near Colesberg and then went in search of accommodation further east. We ended up in Oviston, a small town on the edge of the Gariep Dam (also my first time). What was interesting to see was how lush the vegetation in the grasslands looked compared to the western reaches of my study area, and of the country in general. The landscape was carpeted in green, with some impressive annuals showing their vibrant faces. After a stay at a farmer’s house between Steynsberg and Venterstad, and a day devoid of sampling due to rain, sampling was fairly easy sailing from then on. We missioned between Venterstad and Cradock, sampling four sites along the way, before heading towards Graaff-Reinet for another site, then to Beaufort West and eventually back home to Cape Town.

We were met with thundershowers more than once and, consequently, very muddy district roads. At this point I will mention that we were driving a bakkie with no 4WD – mud was our nemesis. I had many tiny panic attacks along the way because of this (which I suspect Sam enjoyed just a little bit). We had to postpone an entire day of sampling due to weather conditions (it is not advisable to carry aluminium rods up a koppie during a thunderstorm), which we spent catching up on species IDs, digitizing datasheets, and other work (and also a few sneaky episodes of Planet Earth).

Overall it was a very successful trip. Just one more two-week long trip and I’ll be done with my data collection. At this point I’d like to say thanks again to Sam Jack – I literally would not be able to do any of this without him. He is my mentor, my friend, my driver, my field assistant, my photographer, and my Afrikaans translator and diplomat. This degree belongs as much to you as it does to me. Thank you so, so much.

Read the official article for this blog post on the Plant Conservation Unit website here.

Personal anecdotes on anxiety in academia

This is definitely one of the trickier topics to discuss, but a number of encounters have convinced me that it’s a good idea to do so, so that something good comes from it. I spent the last two weeks in perpetual silent anxiety about… I wasn’t quite sure what. But that’s just it, isn’t it? People who’ve had similar run-ins with anxiety would understand that it’s never easy to isolate any single incident, any cause, any answer to the question, “What’s wrong?”

The problem could be a single variable, it could be multiple variables, or it could be the interaction between those variables (bit of a dry stats comparison coming through there) – it could even be none of them. But the way to overcome the anxiety and pull yourself back together isn’t always by isolating the cause and working on that like everyone seems to believe… sometimes the way to overcome it is just to acknowledge it and be honest with yourself, most importantly, and then also know the point at which you need to seek help. You yourself should be aware of the people who you feel most comfortable just talking to… not to discuss your problems, but just to find some solace and a sense of acceptance and understanding. From personal experience, it’s sometimes not the best idea to speak to those closest to you as a first resort. The reason is simple. People who love you tend to worry and fuss about you, and if you’ve suddenly come to them feeling not-like-yourself, there will be a fuss. There will be questions, most of which would meet the totally honest answer, “I don’t know” – which more likely than not will be mistaken for concealing true feelings.

“What happened?” – idk

“How are you feeling?” – idk

“Is it something at home? At work?” – idk

The other problem is that often, it’s not really advice that we need…


… but instead just someone who listens, who understands, who accepts and doesn’t take offense, and who trusts that we know what we need during that time:


In fact, I found it quite a lot easier to eventually start talking about what I was going through with people who were just colleagues, or people I saw only occasionally, or people I hadn’t seen in ages. Obviously, this differs between people. Some people need some extra encouragement before they actually realise that people genuinely care about them, whether those people are close to them or not. I found my first burst of encouragement in the most unexpected place. During the second week of my little slump, at my lowest low of exhaustion, anxiety, absent-mindedness, uneasiness, and overall emotional disharmony, I received a gift. It was from a visiting researcher from the States, who I had had only a few encounters and conversations with during his time in Cape Town, relatively speaking. The gift itself, and the note that accompanied it, were so thoughtful and so incredibly well-timed that I nearly started crying when I read it. On the off-chance that he sees this post: I really hope that in reading this, you understand how much difference your kind gesture made. From then on, I started being more open and honest about how I was feeling, instead of keeping it all to myself.


I sat down and spoke to my supervisor about it, and how I felt like I had no direction anymore. I spoke to my colleague about how little work I’ve been managing to get done, and how this impacted on my work plan.


I spoke to my friend about how completely defeated I felt about the way my data collection was going (I use the word ‘defeated’ here to avoid profanity, but if you’d like a hint as to what I really meant, as well as for some science-related comic relief, click here).

Interestingly, the response I got from my peers, colleagues, and supervisor were remarkably similar: no judgment, no questioning, no fussing, no hurry to give misplaced advice; just a calm sigh, understanding nods, and some words of motivation and real-talk. It was fairly obvious that they’d been there before. And so have a multitude of other scientists around the globe. It is not a new development for a scientist to suffer from anxiety or depression or any other illness (physical or mental). It is, apparently, totally normal. And hearing about others’ experiences really helps to grasp the reality of it and understand how to manage your experiences when they happen.

I won’t go into detail, but I will link a few blog posts on the topic, because I think it’s highly beneficial for people, particularly people in the scientific community and adjacent, to acknowledge and understand some of the points raised. For convenience, here’s a tiny summary (I’m usually terrible at summarising, so be grateful):

  • scientists and academics are not robots
  • as with any challenging, competitive research career, emotions run really high, and people have different ways of coping
  • depending on the person, career stress can either motivate them or tear them down
  • if you’re not going to be supportive of someone who is very obviously experiencing stress or anxiety, please withhold comment, rather than shaming them
  • it’s important to be honest with yourself about the causes of your anxiety, if you’re able to isolate the roots (i.e. don’t blame your work if it’s really because of personal issues, because your work might be essential to you overcoming your anxiety)

The above is by no means an exhaustive list, and again, I highly recommend reading the posts listed below.

Let me end off with an excerpt from one of them:

“[…] we need to be more accepting of diversity in science, including that people with different personalities and different attributes can contribute to science and academia.”

Also, it’s totally okay to cry ❤

A final word of thanks to Sarah Andersen for her super honest and relatable comics featured above (copyrighted to Sarah Andersen), and to Meghan Duffy, an ecologist at the University of Michigan, and the author of a blog called Dynamic Ecology, from which I sourced the posts featured below.

Further reading:
  1. There is crying in science. That’s okay.
  2. Academics are humans with human emotions and problems
  3. Life as an anxious scientist